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Born: January 14, 1968
Biography: Hip-hop is notorious for short-lived careers, but LL Cool J is the inevitable exception that proves the rule. Releasing his first hit, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," in 1985 when he was just 17 years old, LL initially was a hard-hitting, streetwise b-boy with spare beats and ballistic rhymes. He quickly developed an alternate style, a romantic -- and occasionally sappy -- lover's rap epitomized by his mainstream breakthrough single, "I Need Love." LL's first two albums, Radio and Bigger and Deffer, made him a star, but he strived for pop stardom a little too much on 1989's Walking with a Panther. By 1990, his audience had declined somewhat, since his ballads and party raps were the opposite of the chaotic, edgy political hip-hop of Public Enemy or the gangsta rap of N.W.A, but he shot back to the top of the charts with Mama Said Knock You Out, which established him as one of hip-hop's genuine superstars. By the mid-'90s, he had starred in his own television sitcom, In the House, appeared in several films, and had racked up two of his biggest singles with "Hey Lover" and "Doin' It." In short, he had proven that rappers could have long-term careers.
Of course, that didn't seem likely when he came storming out of Queens, New York, when he was 16 years old. LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith; his stage name is an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James") had already been rapping since the age of nine. Two years later, his grandfather -- he had been living with his grandparents since his parents divorced when he was four -- gave him a DJ system and he began making tapes at home. Eventually, he sent these demo tapes to record companies, attracting the interest of Def Jam, a fledgling label run by New York University students Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin.
Def Jam signed LL and released his debut, "I Need a Beat," as their first single in 1984. The record sold over 100,000 copies, establishing both the label and the rapper. LL dropped out of high school and recorded his debut album, Radio. Released in 1985, Radio was a major hit and it earned considerable praise for how it shaped raps into recognizable pop-song structures. On the strength of "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and "Rock the Bells," the album went platinum in 1986. The following year, his second album, Bigger and Deffer, shot to number three due to the ballad "I Need Love," which became one of the first pop-rap crossover hits. [Read more via AllMusic here]
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